A Political Remix

A Political Remix

Kendra King '94 puts hip-hop-and more- into the teaching of politics

By John Fleming | Photos by Jenni Girtman


Kendra King

Referring to the importance of youth to the political process in the run-up to the election of Barack Obama, King chooses to quote the hip-hop artists De La Soul: “Stakes is high.”

This is the way King explains the shook-up post-George W. Bush world and, by all accounts, her students get it. The nation’s youth certainly got the broader message in November, pouring forth to canvass, to blog, to vote, she says. But the new, new way represented by King’s discourse is also aimed at taking the bland out of Political Science 101, bringing something current to the particulars of, say, party politics. Take the Republican Party for example.

“They have to find a way to rebound. They have to create a remix, a hip-hop mash-up,” King said. “Lately the GOP has been looking and acting a lot like it did in the 1950s, with all the old-school rhetoric to go along with it. If that is the future of the party, then I say it’s not going to work.”

It is a line straight out of one of her classes, The Politics of Hip Hop, a course popular with students not only because of the way it connects to the rap generation but also because of its clarity and sense of relevance to the here and now, the essential importance of this moment in our political history.

Explaining politics in the supposed post-racial society, in the midst of a region dripping with racial history, isn’t easy. It takes a nimble mind to assess and articulate the subtleties of the three obsessions of the Deep South—race, religion, and politics. Especially so for someone who grew up in Providence, R.I., and who must do it in a way that captivates the Facebook generation of Oglethorpe.

One of her approaches: ask students to watch The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the Bravo reality show, as a way to better understand the worldview of the South’s most important commercial center. This is the assignment for her class The New American City.

That is the kindly trap she sets. What follows is exploration of the richer cultural and political layers under the South’s façade—and the lesson that this brand of reality TV—devoid of the poor, of conflict, even Atlanta traffic—presents an unreal version of the city.

King was put off by Obama’s seeming inability to pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement that paved the way for Obama’s ascension to power.

In the chaos of Oglethorpe’s Oxford-like dining hall, between boisterous encouragements with students and smiling, whispered conversations with faculty, she launches into a vivid explanation of why certain Southern states, and many a rural area of the South, went overwhelmingly for John McCain for president.

“There is a strong feeling of traditionalism in rural Georgia and across the South,” she said over chicken and dumplings and green beans. “There is an old value structure, a certain amount of ignorance and xenophobia and, yes, racism. So, yes, it’s complicated.”

So complicated that King herself considered voting for John McCain. And yes, when it comes to Kendra King, it’s best not to be presumptuous.

She transferred to Colby after a brief period at Clark Atlanta University. That in itself, she says, was something of an extended transition, from urban Providence, to even more urban Atlanta, to Colby.

She was, she recalls, one of only 33 black students at Colby back in the early ’90s and, though she has good memories and cherishes the fact that her fellow students elected her to be senior-class commencement speaker, she has something of an idea of “what it is like to be mistreated.”

“Clearly it wasn’t easy leaving a historically black institution in the warmth of Atlanta to venture to Waterville, Maine,” she said. “What I discovered, however, was that even in what seemed to be one of the strangest places I’d ever been, there were at Colby people of genuine goodwill whose mission was to help me navigate the invisible ice of a new academic and personal environment.”

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